For These Ukrainian Soldiers, the Fight Is Personal

The objective for one private taking part in Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia is not complicated: it is a house near the beach, overflowing with flowers, the play room strewn with toys.

Ukrainian military strategists may be intent on driving a wedge through Russian forces and cutting supply lines, but Private Yevheniy just wants to see his home again, in the Azov Sea port city of Berdyansk.

“I miss the sea most of all,” he said, as his unit held ground in the frontline village of Tavriyske.

As a rule, soldiers go wherever they are sent, but the Ukrainian Army makes an exception: those who were driven from their hometowns after Russia invaded last year can request to take part in the fight to liberate them.

And so sprinkled among the ranks of soldiers fighting in the counteroffensive that began in southern Ukraine in June are soldiers with a special motivation. They come from villages and towns in the region, know it intimately, and sometimes have family and friends on the other side of the front line.

“It is much better for the brigade to have people who know the area, so the commanders allow you to fight in the direction of your home,” said a lieutenant colonel named Dmytro, who like other military members provided only his first name.

Vladyslav, a 28-year-old farmer, left his village in the Zaporizhzhia region after the invasion. Now he is on the frontline.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

Colonel Dmytro is deputy commander of the 36th Marine Brigade, and his family is still in an occupied town in the Kherson region. He, too, asked for the assignment.

“I want to see my parents, the faster the better,” he said.

In interviews, a dozen or so soldiers whose homes are in front of the trenches they are now fighting in said they wanted to walk back into the towns they once fled, this time in uniform, with guns in hand.

But first they have to make it through the heavily fortified Russian defensive lines.

“If it will take me five years to see my home, that’s fine, I’m not in a rush,” said Private Yevheniy. He was about 100 miles away from it.

He and his family were in Kyiv when the Russians invaded. They had been splitting their time between the capital and Berdyansk, but planned to move to there permanently.

Now he is heading there as a soldier, aided by his intimate acquaintance with the terrain.

“I can feel the energy of the soil here, and I know every bush on this front” Private Yevheniy said. “I can make decisions faster because I know all the rivers. Which dry out in summer, and which do not.”

Soldiers from occupied towns understand that the cost of liberation could be very high. Private Yevheniy, who helps guide artillery strikes, said he would do what it took to reclaim his town.

The road leading toward the village of Novodarivka, which was recaptured during the Ukrainian counteroffensive.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

“I would shell my home if needed,” he said.

In any case, he joked, he had not been happy with the pink and orange paint his wife had chosen for the rooms. Now, they may have a chance to revisit those decorating choices.

Hostilities with Moscow began in parts of eastern Ukraine years before the full-scale invasion in February 2022, and Ukrainians who took part in that earlier fighting said staying was not an option.

“In the best case, I would be in a basement” prison, said Vladyslav, a 28-year-old farmer who left his village in the Zaporizhzhia region in the first days of the invasion. “In the worst case, they would rub me out.”

After re-enlisting Vladyslav, a sergeant, asked to fight to reclaim his village, which is now about 30 miles in front of his frontline trench position.

“I miss my walls, everything I worked for,” he said. “I miss my mother’s food. She makes dumplings with potato and cabbage. And I want to come home in this way.” In uniform, he meant.

Some soldiers spoke of revenge against Ukrainians in occupied areas who took the Russian side in this war. “First, I will go and beat up the friends who betrayed their country” Private Yevheniy said.

Oleksandr, center, is from the city of Bakhmut, which was destroyed in the war.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

Another soldier, Oleksandr, 23, is from Bakhmut, the eastern city destroyed after a nearly yearlong battle. He said it was important for all those fighting to hold onto the image of how their homes once looked.

“Just remember how good you felt in your city,” he said. “Remember this feeling that they took away from you.”

The city of Mariupol, too, on the shore of Azov sea, can also hardly be recognized now after the heavy Russian bombing of the civilian areas.

One surgeon there, Leonid, 43, said he had been helping the wounded at his hospital every day until Russian forces shelled it. He recounted then walking out through the Russian encirclement still in his white medical gown, which was splattered with blood.

Once out of occupied territory, he joined the 36th Marine Brigade as a military doctor and asked to be sent to the front near his hometown.

“I always imagine that I will drive into Mariupol in my uniform and with a gun,” he said. “My family will see that I was fighting for them all this time.”

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